How our fascination with mirrors reflects who we are
The Tribune is running a series of some of the original essays students write for Dr. Peter Kreeft's Christianity & Existentialism class. The following essay covers themes Christian existentialist philosopher Blaise Pascal considers in his Pensees ("Thoughts").
We are embarrassed by how much our physical reflection enthralls us. In mirrors, storefront windows, polished spoons, darkened cell phone screens or anything else reflective, we linger on our image and never grow bored of it. If people catch us viewing ourselves unnecessarily or excessively, we feel self-conscious. If we glimpse an unidentified reflection in our peripheral vision and then look at it straight on and realize it was our own reflection, we momentarily feel disoriented, out-of-body, disconnected from ourselves. Can these phenomena be reduced to simple behavioral reactions, like those of elephants, who also recognize their mirror images? Or does our fascination with our reflection stem from reasons that are more existentially complex, reasons that philosopher Blaise Pascal would corroborate? Common experiences with mirror-obsession indicate our physical vanity, our metaphysical makeup and our spiritual state, all of which Pascal discusses in his single work, Pensees.
From Narcissus to Nicki Minaj, physical vanity has been ubiquitous throughout history and in culture. This vanity illustrates humanity’s fixation on trivialities. When you look into a mirror, you may notice minutia about your image that others don’t notice but may affect choices you make about clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, etc. Maybe your nose is a millimeter too wide or your eyes a millimeter too close together. We fixate on these physical qualities partly because we believe they can affect how others view us. Pascal writes, “Cleopatra’s nose: if it had been shorter the whole face of the earth would have been different.” The size of our nose can affect how others view us and how they act toward us. Choices that result from these vain details cause butterfly effects that determine the course of our lives and the lives of those around us. Rarely will you see a rich, handsome football player marrying his average-looking high school sweetheart. Perhaps that is why it can feel urgent to look into a mirror everyday—to see if our eyes are still that lovely shade of blue or if our ears look smaller in a different light; will the same people love us if we look otherwise? Will “I” be the same person?
We want our physical appearance to express who we are. The ladies who shop together at the boutique try on dresses and exclaim to each other, “That dress is so you!” That is, the dress signifies some qualities of her personal nature. Entire subcultures have developed around styles of dress; usually these subcultures involve attitudes, music and other attributes, but clothing is integral to their expression and thus, their existence. The women who wear dark eyeshadow, fake lashes and red lipstick may be labeled “trashy” or some other suggestive term, whether or not it is actually warranted. Vanity enters when the physical becomes not merely a sign or a metaphor but a substitution for a person’s identity.
If pimples cropped up on your forehead overnight, they could ruin your whole day. One look in the mirror and suddenly you begin to question, perhaps subconsciously, “How can people take me seriously at work today with zits all over my face? Why did I ever find myself attractive?” We realize that we are just as susceptible to this ailment as any thirteen-year-old boy, and because our identity was so connected to our skin, we begin to feel a pubescent self-consciousness. Pascal says of such displeasures, “Flies are so mighty that they win battles, paralyse our minds, eat up our bodies.” We may be undaunted by a demanding boss or a challenging project, but our reflection can steal our confidence, even our identity.
We conflate our essence and our looks because we believe that a beautiful reflection can compensate for lack of character or that an ugly reflection can serve as a scapegoat for guilt. Either way, our visible reflection diverts us from our inward emptiness. If we already equated our faces with our identities, we think we can at least be beautiful even if we are not moral. A beautiful woman may be sexually impure, but her skin is flawless, or her body is slender because she eats chastely. Or perhaps a bald, overweight man convinces himself he will no longer feel guilty if he loses weight and wears a toupee, because then he will have met the society’s standards for excellence. In contrast to these sensibilities, Pascal presents the intuitive notion that people retain their identities despite physical changes. “But what about a person who loves someone for the sake of her beauty; does he love her?” he asks. “No, for smallpox, which will destroy beauty without destroying the person, will put an end to his love for her.” Most people would readily assent to this observation, but we nevertheless struggle to live as though it were true. We worry that if we’re not beautiful, there will be nothing left of who we are. This is the conclusion of neglecting character: substituting the accidental for the essential, because we must have a self, and it must be good.
Our reflection also fascinates us because it may hint at our metaphysical nature, which is mysterious. Here’s an interesting experiment: by yourself, go into a dimly lit room with a mirror, position your face about ten inches from the mirror, and stare into your eyes for thirty seconds without moving. When some of my friends and I tried it, we experienced the same strange phenomena. At first nothing is unusual, but eventually you begin to feel uncomfortable; you become acutely aware of the distinction between your mind—the part that perceives your image—and the body standing before you. Then the body seems like it no longer belongs to you. Finally, the body takes on a life of its own, separate from yours, and becomes frightening, alien. (Of course this is all more subtle than it sounds, but it is real insofar as it is a psychological phenomenon that some people detect.) The faint light tweaks the normal experience of viewing your image in a bright bathroom and thus enhances the sense of strangeness. Your face’s awkward closeness to the mirror contributes to the same effect.
Practically and allusively, this experiment shows us that we aren’t just physical. Pascal mentions this fact of human nature repeatedly: “…we are composed of two opposing natures of different kinds, soul and body…” People are intuitively conscious of the mind-body problem. In the mirror experiment, if you move your hand after having remained still for thirty seconds, the action seems remarkable. How can a thought, a mental act of the will, manifest itself in your body? Pascal writes, “Who would not think, to see us compounding everything of mind and matter, that such a mixture is perfectly intelligible to us? Yet this is the thing we understand least…The way in which minds are attached to bodies is beyond man’s understanding, and yet this is what man is.” The mind-body problem is unfathomable in theory and even more mysterious to experience psychologically by reflecting on our reflections in the mirror. We feel alienated from ourselves; we know that we are, but we cannot comprehend what we are—our very nature, which common sense tells us we should know best.
Since we don’t know our natures, we try to objectify what is inherently subjective to us: our selves. To be human is to be both an object and a subject, but we cannot objectify our own subjectivity. Nevertheless, a mirror image helps us come close. We look at our “self,” but only our physical self. Maybe we hope that physical manifestations of ourselves—our gestures, voice, face, eyes (the “window to the soul,” after all)—will give us a clue to who we are. We can see our physical appearance as a whole. With ourselves, we can see only a conglomerate of qualities and perceptions and thoughts that emanate from the heart of our being: our will and our subjectivity. Even though you are an object to other people, their knowledge of you is also limited, based on qualities and actions they observe in you. Pascal says of this matter, “And if someone loves me for my judgement or my memory, do they love me? me, myself? No, for I could lose these qualities without losing myself. Where then is this self, if it is neither in the body nor the soul?” That doesn’t mean other people cannot know you in part. But you try to objectify your subjectivity because you want to know you.
This reality may explain why we feel strange when we realize a previously unidentified reflection we saw peripherally in a store window was ours all along. Suddenly an object became infused with our self, our spirit, our subjectivity. For a fleeting moment, we almost understood what it is to see ourselves as others see us, a perspective we cannot fundamentally control. A similar phenomenon rattles us when we hear and watch ourselves in a video recording. Once I saw an obscured person gesturing in a video and thought, “Wow, that person looks odd.” Then I realized that the person was me. We perceive how much power we have over our actions and how little power we have over how others perceive them.
We can be known and we are known, but we won’t find ourselves in a mirror. The “love chapter” in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, teaches us, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” God knows our self, because he sees our hearts. Only God knows us fully, because “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The heart is what moves you to act, that part of you that seems like a dispassionate observer of the myriad “selves” you create around false identities, which can range from your actions to the way you look in the mirror.
It’s no accident that Paul mentions this mysterious talk of mirrors and reflections and being known in the same chapter as the importance of love. He, like Pascal, believes that we are “known by our love” insofar as we find our identities in Christ. Pascal writes, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways.” The heart knows right from wrong and sees people with the eyes of love. When Christ gives you a new heart, you can see the dignity of people—their inherent ontological worth—that moves you to love them, despite the evil resident in human nature, which your new heart can also see in yourself. Your mind does not see itself, but your heart can Know Thyself. This is why philosophers will not solve the mind-body problem with reason, but Christians can believe in that mystical union by faith.
The heart transcends the mind, Pascal writes, and controls the choices our mind analyzes that make us who we are. I have experienced sleepless nights when I felt such a deep angst that I was compelled to go into the bathroom, turn on a light, and look in the mirror. Those nights, usually induced by some guilt or failing or approaching important choice, made me want to scream, “WHO AM I??” at my reflection. Even Christians have existential crises. I realize now that the deep ache was my individual essence experiencing growing pains. Once God has our hearts, He begins a work in us, and He will complete it.
Pascal taught me that my fascination with my reflection evinces my tripartite nature: body, mind, and heart. This nature is why mirrors both help me fix my hair and attract me when I know my heart needs to be fixed. They remind us of our strangeness as embodied souls and of our inability to comprehend that mystery. Reflections show us who we and other people are, but only in part: queer subject-objects with hidden selves. But on the day of salvation we shall know fully, even as God already knows us.
If you are taking Christianity & Existentialism, please send along your essays to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Kreeft is a true lover of wisdom, from whom I am privileged to learn.